Senate Votes Down Amendment to Remove Tribal Provisions from Violence Against Women Act
In Senate floor speech, Sen. Cantwell urged colleagues to reject amendment that would have cut protections for Tribal victims
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, urged her Senate colleagues to reject an amendment to the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (S.47) that would have stripped critical protections for Tribal women. The amendment was defeated by a vote of 31-59 this evening.
The amendment would have removed the vast majority of Section 904 of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which ensures that non-Indian defendants in Tribal court are afforded due process in a manner consistent with state and federal courts. This includes the right to effective assistance of counsel, the right to a trial by an impartial jury, as well as all other Constitutional rights.
“This isn’t about politics. This isn’t about a debate on what is a good way to win votes somewhere in America,” Cantwell said in a floor speech prior to the vote. “This is about the life and death of women who need a better system to help prosecute those who are committing serious crimes against them.”
Watch a video of Senator Cantwell’s floor speech here.
Last week Senator Cantwell spoke on the Senate floor about a similar amendment that would overturn Tribal jurisdiction and limit the ability of Tribal courts to punish non-Indian domestic violence offenders who assault Indian women.
Cantwell is an original co-sponsor of the bill introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) on January 22, 2013. Since the first VAWA bill passed in 1994, domestic violence has decreased by 53 percent. The reauthorization bill includes critical improvements to extend domestic violence protections to individuals, including women in Tribal communities, who are currently not protected. An estimated 40 percent of Native women experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. Eighty percent of perpetrators of these crimes are non-Indian, and under current law, are not likely to be prosecuted by Tribal governments.
Previous reauthorizations of VAWA have been approved in a timely fashion with overwhelming support. Last Congress, a similar Senate version of the VAWA reauthorization bill passed the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 68-31, but ultimately stalled in the House. S. 47 has 60 co-sponsors and is expected to head to the Senate floor for final passage tomorrow.
Cantwell has been a consistent champion for the reauthorization of VAWA. In December, she joined six of her female Democratic Senate colleagues to call for House passage of VAWA before Congress adjourned for the year. In April 2012, she joined Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) at the King County Sheriff’s office to highlight the benefits of the bill to local law enforcement.
Excerpts from Senator Cantwell’s remarks:
• “This isn’t about politics. This isn’t about a debate on what is a good way to win votes somewhere in America. This is about the life and death of women who need a better system to help prosecute those who are committing serious crimes against them.”
• “If you think you are rooting out crime in America and you are letting a sieve happen in Indian Country you are not rooting out crime. You are sending a signal to people that this is an easy place to go. You are saying that this is the place where you can escape the law.”
• “But clearly we should not ignore the statistics and the gap that are showing us that we need to do something very important to make sure that all women, including Native American women, no longer suffer these statistics that are just unbearable in the United States of America.”
TRANSCRIPT: Senator Cantwell’s remarks as delivered.
Ms. CANTWELL. Madam President, I come to the floor this afternoon to speak against the amendment being offered by my colleague, Senator Coburn. I know he was on the Senate floor earlier today explaining his amendment, and I also know my colleague from Texas was just out here making general remarks about the Violence Against Women Act and its reauthorization. I am here to continue the debate and to make sure it is clear to my colleagues that, make no mistake, a vote for the Coburn amendment is a vote against Native American women. That is because the amendment would strip the bill of provisions that are intended to bring about better justice for women who have been the victims of domestic violence crimes on Indian reservations.
Many people who have been out here on the floor have been talking about the breakdown in our political system and that somehow this is about partisan politics. Well, I can assure my colleagues this is an issue where many women in the Senate have been scratching their heads and asking themselves: Why is it the Violence Against Women Act and the Trafficking Prevention Reauthorization Act have both been stymied by various Members in both the House and Senate? These are crimes that are mostly perpetrated against women. Why aren't these bills resolved and passed so we can give clarity to local officials and partners so they can provide a better justice system and help so many women in the United States of America?
Native American women are raped and assaulted at 2 1/2 times the national average. That means more than 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped in their lifetime and 3 in 5 will suffer from domestic assault. Murder is the third leading cause of death among Native American women. However, less than 50 percent of the domestic violence cases in Indian Country are prosecuted because of a gap in our legal system.
So this isn't about politics. This isn't a debate on what is a good way to win votes somewhere in America. This is about the life and death of women who need a better system to prosecute those who are committing serious crimes against them.
My colleagues can certainly take exception to the solution that has been provided here, but as many of my colleagues have said in the past, they can't own the facts. They can have their opinions, but I am here to say the underlying bill does protect the constitutional rights of non-Native Americans who commit these crimes on tribal reservations.
We are consulting with the Department of Justice, which did an elaborate study and analysis of exactly how to make sure the gap in the Federal system, which currently doesn't provide a prosecutor, doesn't provide a judge, which doesn't provide a court on every section of land in the United States of America, will be represented with a judicial partner that does guarantee the civil liberties of U.S. citizens, and guarantee that they are protected in both a fair trial and the ability to have habeas corpus review by a Federal court.
What we have here are two or three Republican administrations whose Solicitor Generals have basically said these rights remain with Native Americans and the Federal Government. The last Solicitor General said:
The policy of leaving Indians free from State jurisdiction and control is deeply rooted in our Nation's history.
But this is about a Federal partnership and making sure a Federal law is upheld. So if my colleagues on the other side of the aisle want to say we are going to provide a Federal prosecutor and a Federal Court system on every reservation or close to every reservation across America, OK, great. My point is if you think you are rooting out crime in America, while letting a sieve happen in Indian Country, you are not rooting out crime. You are sending a signal to people that this is an easy place to go. If you want to conduct sex trafficking of women, go to tribal reservations. If you want to escape the law and not worry about violent behavior, then go to tribal reservations. That is what you are saying to people. You are saying this is the place where you can escape the law.
We are trying to close that gap. So this is not something that has been done with sleight of hand. This is something where a great deal of thought has gone into it by the Department of Justice.
I will remind my colleagues it was one of our former colleagues, the Indian Civil Rights Act was crafted by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, to grant American Indians the same Bill of Rights in tribal courts as are afforded defendants in any other courts. Those rights included the Miranda right, a trial by jury, the right to counsel, the right to confront their accuser, and a right to habeas corpus. So all of these things are actually in the tribal system today. They are a part of what is called the Indian Civil Rights Act, and they affect Native Americans.
My colleague, Senator Cornyn, said these civil liberties provided to U.S. citizens are not included in this legislation. They are included. They are included in section 904 on page 182. Those same civil liberties are called out in this bill, S. 47, the reauthorization of the VAWA Act. They are called out specifically for nontribal U.S. citizens. So in that court system both tribal members and nontribal members are protected by the same civil liberties and are protected in their ability to have federal habeas corpus review in Federal Court.
I am not sure to what my colleagues are referring. If I am missing some point, I would love to hear about it. But these safeguards were built into this system because this is such an egregious problem that we have to fix. So we are asking Indian Country and tribal courts to meet these same criteria. If a tribal court can't provide legal counsel to a defendant, if they can't follow these same things, then no one is going to be tried under a tribal court system.
We are trying to address cases like the one mentioned in the New York Times today of a woman who was battered and beaten by a partner so many times, yet he was never arrested and tried because it happened on a tribal reservation. Only when he showed up at her worksite with a gun to kill her -- and only because an employee pushed her out of the way is she here today -- could something be done. We are trying to close that gap and protect everyone's civil liberties.
I want to be clear. The civil liberties that are protected under this Senate bill -- the civil liberties protections of due process, for no unreasonable search or seizure, no double jeopardy, a right to counsel, not being compelled to testify against yourself, the ability to get a speedy trial, the right to trial by jury, the right to confront witnesses, the right of habeas corpus review in federal court-- are all in S. 47 as it relates to non-Native Americans. Those are the rights that are going to be protected. That is what we are passing in this legislation.
So we shouldn't strip out this provision. We should move forward with what has been a discussion about how to partner and uphold Federal law in the most efficient, cost-effective manner possible, and in conjunction with what has been Federal law and determination about tribal sovereignty and issues by many Solicitor Generals, by many Supreme Courts, by many individuals who have looked at this situation.
Members can decide they don't trust Indian Country. They can say: I don't trust this tribe, or I don't trust that one. If that is the case, they should come to the Senate floor and say that. Say they don't believe they can bring about justice in their courts, if that is what they mean. But under this statute they will absolutely have to, and they absolutely have to today for every tribal member who comes before that court, and they will be required to uphold those same issues for non-Native Americans as well.
I would say to my colleagues that this is an epidemic. Believe me, I want to get the Violence Against Women Act passed. I want to get this human sex trafficking act out of the hands of the House of Representatives and passed. I know some of my colleagues are trying to attach some of that here, but I would say we should pass both of these. This is about an epidemic in America, and we are trying to put together some creative solutions. If I am wrong about the facts and the details about civil liberties, I would love to hear about it. Otherwise, I would like my colleagues to vote against the Coburn amendment, which strikes these provisions, and pass this legislation so we can move on and get a final bill that protects women all across America whether they are tribal members or not.
Clearly, we should not ignore the statistics and the gap that shows us that we need to do something very important to make sure all women, including Native American women, no longer suffer from these statistics that are just unbearable in the United States of America.
So, Madam President, I hope our colleagues will turn down the Coburn amendment and vote for final passage on this legislation.
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